Aug 9 2021

Want Healthier Worship on Sunday? Gotta Serve Somebody on Monday!

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Sunday worship is both the culmination and commencement of the worship week. Commencement means a beginning or a start and culmination means an end or an arrival at a final stage. When considering these definitions with regard to Sunday worship, what seems mutually exclusive is actually collectively exhaustive. Is the Sunday worship service the commencement of the worship week? Yes! Is the Sunday worship service the culmination of the worship week? Yes!

As a commencement, the Sunday service sings our congregations out. The worship when we gather may be great, but until it impacts those we come into contact with when we disperse, it’s incomplete. As a culmination, the Sunday service sings our congregations in. Gathered worship is then a continuation and celebration of the worship that has already been occurring during the week through sacrificial acts of service. So, Sunday is the day we both gather them for worship and disperse them to worship.

A couple of decades ago I was conducting the last Saturday morning rehearsal before our choir and orchestra presented their Christmas music the next day in our services. We needed six hours of rehearsal but only had three, so the stress was high and levity low. Right in the middle of rehearsing one of the songs, a man entered the worship center behind me, distracting the players and singers. I stopped the song to address the interruption and regain control of rehearsal.

It was obvious from his appearance that this man’s needs were benevolent ones. He was there to request help with food for his family, fuel for their car, and firewood to heat their home. Since he had recently lost his job, he was also hoping our church could help with Christmas gifts for his children. I responded to his request by saying, “We’re in the middle of preparing for a special Christmas worship service tomorrow at church, so we won’t have time to help you right now. But if you’ll come by our offices on Monday, we’ll see if we can get you some assistance.” He never returned.

Mark Labberton wrote, “Worship can name a Sunday gathering of God’s people, but it also includes how we treat those around us, how we spend our money, and how we care for the lost and the oppressed. Worship can encompass every dimension of our lives.”[1] I often wonder how much more impactful our Christmas worship services on that Sunday evening might have been if I had taken a few moments to serve as an act of worship on that Saturday morning.

We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs as an expression of our desire to know Jesus, but the Jesus we want to know is the sanitized Jesus who looks a lot like us. Despite God’s word to the contrary, we think that we can say we love God yet hate our neighbor, neglect the widow, forget the orphan, fail to visit the prisoner, ignore the oppressed. When we do this, our worship becomes a lie to God.[2]

Serving others reminds us that the sermons we have prepared and songs we have selected may not be the most important act of worship this week. Serving others is one of those actions we take to ensure that worship continues when we leave our services. We spend so much time leading church services as an act of worship that we often neglect to lead the church in service as an act of worship too. Worship as service will never be completely realized until we can say every Sunday, “Worship has left the building.” God is looking for a worship lifestyle that rights wrongs, cares for the poor, rejects injustice, and embraces generosity. Worship that comes from a community that doesn’t model those characteristics turns the beautiful melodies we’ve just sung into something discordant.[3]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What could occur as we lead gathered worship on Sunday if we have served together as a team during the week?
  • How can we better balance our time between our worship services and worship as service?
  • In what ways can we ensure the songs we sing on Sunday are also evident in the lives we lead the rest of the week?
  • What service ministry might we adopt together as a team?

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 13.

[2] Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship, 71.

[3] David Ruis, The Justice God Is Seeking: Responding to the Heart of God through Compassionate Worship (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2006), 29.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jul 12 2021

Is Hallmark Planning Your Worship Services?

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Some congregations and even entire denominations have not embraced the Christian calendar as foundational to their worship planning and implementation out of concern that it is too rigid, routine, or orthodox. In their desire to be non-liturgical, however, some have in fact created their own liturgy framed by Hallmark or denominational and civic calendars.

The desire for worship creativity has caused some congregations to look elsewhere, believing annual celebrations promote monotony and conformity. But Timothy Carson wrote, “Exactly the opposite may be true. Because it has stood the test of time, it may be sufficiently deep to allow me to swim more deeply in it. Because it is repeated, I have another chance, today, to go where I could not go yesterday.”[1]

In the Middle Ages the church calendar was filled with such a multitude of saints’ days that the value of festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost was lost. In response, some of the Reformers eliminated the entire church year. Other Protestants responded similarly, and in the sixteenth century the Puritans rejected even Christmas as a festival day.[2]

As Protestant congregations started again to commemorate special days, they focused on cultural and denominational calendars instead of on the Christian calendar. As the antitheses to what was considered Catholic, these civic days were given as much or more credibility as the days of the Christian calendar. But some congregations who avoided the Christian calendar were affirming annual observances whose foundations were not biblically grounded.[3]

I love, appreciate, and revere my family. I am grateful I get to be their husband and dad. I think about them often and can’t imagine life without them. Our story is something I enjoy celebrating and telling others about every chance I get. As a result of that gratitude, what if I used the worship service this Sunday just to exalt my family? Instead of worshipping God that day, what if I planned the entire service to celebrate and sing the praises of my family?

If idolatry is extreme devotion to anyone or anything that isn’t God, then replacing the cross with our mothers, fathers, graduates, or the flag as the primary symbol of our worship on any given Sunday could cause us to stray into idol territory. God’s story and our response to that story transcend cultural and denominational calendars.

Harold Best wrote, “There is one fundamental fact about worship: at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ.”[4] Best continued with, “All worship outside the worship of God through Christ Jesus is idolatrous.”[5]

God has placed each one of our congregations in a unique cultural and national context. Worshipping while giving consideration to those contexts is one of the exciting challenges for a modern church. As long as Christian worship is our starting point it will provide us with the opportunity to take up that challenge without compromising our biblical and theological foundations.[6]  Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday, and Memorial Day in the same seasons as Ascension Day and Pentecost? Without ignoring one or the other, it is possible to converge holidays significant to our civic and denominational calendars with those Christian holidays significant to the kingdom.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What days or seasons in the Christian calendar haven’t we been observing that we could add to our worship calendar?
  • How can we incorporate cultural, denominational, and Christian calendar observances within our worship service?
  • How can we move away from observing holidays that are causing us to take our focus from the worship of God, while still being sensitive to the emotional connection those days have for our congregation?

 

[1] Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 57.

[2] Barry Liesch, People in the Presence of God: Models and Directions for Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 223.

[3] Carson, Transforming Worship, 56.

[4] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 17.

[5] Best, Unceasing Worship, 163.

[6] Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 5, The Services of the Christian Year (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 82–83.

 

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jun 23 2021

Worship Word Wednesday

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Jun 21 2021

Worship Leader: You’re an Usher, Not the Bride

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Most Protestant churches have rejected the old covenant practice of recognizing priests as a special class of religious hierarchy. Even though some congregations have retained the title, their priestly function is often a pastoral role as ministers rather than as interceders. The belief that someone else must mediate our relationship with God for us or dispense God’s grace to us was set aside through the foundational doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

If worship leadership is always done by a select few, then we may be continuing to feed that priestly misconception. Those who lead worship should instead take on that responsibility like an usher in a wedding. The duty of a wedding usher is to help others find their place in the wedding ceremony. They accomplish this task without coercion or force by offering their arm as an encouragement for participants to accompany them.

Ushers always move at an appropriate pace as they guide and exhort friends and family to their proper locations. It is often necessary for ushers to arrive early and stay late since they have just as much responsibility before and after the ceremony as during it. And the best ushers are those who are friendly, genuine, and welcoming without needing to be acknowledged, honored, or credited.

Even though ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony, they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Leading worship like an usher with an attitude of humility is one of the most difficult qualities for a worship leader to embrace and sustain. In the name of a higher calling we are often unwilling to take a secondary and supportive role.

Scripture offers Jesus as “a priest in the holy place, which is the true meeting tent that God, not any human being, set up” (Heb 8:2). In this place of ministry, Jesus became our liturgist and serves as our mediator. As the tabernacle and its elements are described, the author of Hebrews points out that the old covenant limited access to God. Only the high priest was allowed into the holy of holies one time a year with a blood offering (Heb 9:3, 6-7). The place where God’s presence was most realized was not available except through the high priest and only at certain times of the year.

In the new covenant, however, Jesus became the mediator and serves as the intercessor for the people of God. An earthly priest was no longer required; the sacrifice was complete; Jesus’s blood was offered; the veil was torn in half; and the way was now open for all to worship God without an earthly mediator. Most churches embrace that shift theologically and doctrinally but sometimes continue to function with leaders who are still serving as earthly high priests.

Worship leaders’ calling is to invest in, not intercede for, our congregations. That responsibility is Jesus’s alone, not ours. The death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us that all may enter into the presence of God with boldness not available in the restrictions of the old covenant. Our responsibility is to serve our congregations like an usher by exhorting them to an understanding that “we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, and we have a great high priest over God’s house” (Heb 10:19-21).

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How might our worship-leadership habits be causing us to appear as the bride instead of an usher?
  • What would leading like an usher look like each Sunday in the worship culture of our congregation?
  • How can we hold one another accountable if we are to start moving toward leading worship on behalf of instead of with our congregation?
  • If we only have a limited pool of qualified worship leaders, then how do we keep from giving the impression that worship can only be led by a select few?

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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May 17 2021

The Narcissism of Worship My Way

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We are created in God’s image, not God in ours. When we worship we must acknowledge that we aren’t starting the conversation. Instead, God began the dialogue and is inviting us to join it.

Our worship proclaims, enacts, and sings God’s story.[1] If our worship is truly in spirit and truth, then it must reflect who God is, not necessarily just what we want. When we focus on what we need, deserve, and prefer, the attention of our worship is always on us. But when we focus on what God desires, the attention of our worship is on him.

Conversational narcissism is what sociologist Charles Derber calls the constant shifting of the conversation away from others and back to us. Derber wrote, “One conversationalist transforms another’s topic into one pertaining to himself through the persistent use of the shift-response.”[2] Shift-response is taking the topic of conversation initiated by another and shifting its focus to our own selfish interests. We’ve all been involved in those conversations that have been hijacked by someone who makes their own story seem more dramatic, humorous, or emotional than all others. A conversation that originally began with others ends up being focused on them.

Conversational narcissism is manifested in worship when we take the topic and shift its focus to a topic of our own choosing. Instead of worship focused on God and God’s story, it is focused on me and my story.[3] Shifting the topic of our worship can also shift the object of our worship. When those shifts occur, the conversation is no longer initiated by or focused on the worshipped but instead on the worshipper. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis illustrated the difference between just seeing something as an outsider and actually seeing or looking along something as an insider:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.[4]

When we stand outside of the beam and expect it to move where we are, the god we worship looks like us. We believe that the beam is there for our sake instead of our being there for its sake. Then the object of our worship (God and God’s story) is transferred to an object of our own choosing (us and our story). Harold Best wrote, “Idolatry is the difference between walking in the light and creating our own light to walk in.”[5] But when we step into the beam and look along that beam, we don’t just see God, we also see what God wants us to see. Then our worship is no longer shaped by what we want or feel like we’ve earned, but instead is shaped by who God is and what he has done.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we help our congregation step into God’s story instead of expecting God to step into ours?
  • Since we get to select what occurs in worship each week, how can we make sure we aren’t selecting worship elements just to accommodate our own needs?
  • Are there any recent examples where it seems like we asked God to move the beam where we are?
  • What worship elements could we introduce to help our congregants transform from selfish to selfless worshippers?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 39.

[2] Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979), 26–27.

[3] Robert Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 231.

[4] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212.

[5] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 165–66.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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May 3 2021

Creating Worship Tourists

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tourist photo

In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard wrote, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen and noting weather reports radioed from shore. No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things.”[1]

If we never involve our congregants as more than casual bystanders while we read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition, and exhort, then how can we expect them to transform from passive spectators to active participators? Aren’t we really creating worship tourists who select their destination based solely on their impression of the platform tour guide and excursion offered rather than worship travelers on a continuous journey?

Tourists, on the one hand, sample other cultures as long as they aren’t too different from their own. They expect others to adjust to them. Inconvenience for a tourist is always inconvenient because it discourages pleasure and preference. Tourists only scratch the surface and ask what, when, and how much. They only go where the map takes them, are there to experience the sites, aren’t willing to stray away from their native language, and always ask, “What’s in it for me.” Worship tourists are onlookers or observers, much like they would watch an event or game. They are audience members or spectators who might be a fan or foe depending on who is playing and what is being played. And they think they are in the game because they are in the stands.

Travelers, on the other hand, willingly immerse themselves in cultures even when they might be radically different from their own. They adjust instead of expecting others to adjust to them. Inconvenience for a traveler is never inconvenient because it encourages discovery. Travelers always dig deep and ask who and why. They go where the road takes them, are there to understand the sites, attempt to learn new languages, and always ask, “What’s in it of me.” Travelers are involved in the game because they are contributing to it. They relate to what is going on because it is larger than them. As participants they are engaged and involved in the game because they are actually on the field and not in the stands.

Leaders facilitate participative worship not by just depending on their own strengths and abilities but also by investing in the strengths and abilities of other congregants who are willing to subordinate their individual interests to the corporate concerns of the entire congregation. The leader who promotes participative worship taps into the collective resources and talents of others by affirming their value to worship health.

Participative worship is intentionally collaborative and is not guarded, territorial, or defensive. It trusts the creative abilities and resources of the whole in the planning, preparation, and implementation. Consequently, participatory leaders are not threatened when someone else gets their way or gets the credit. Participatory worship is a culture, not a one-time event.

Will Willimon wrote, “Many of the Sunday orders of worship consist of the pastor speaking, the pastor praying, the pastor reading, and the choir singing, with little opportunity for the congregation to do anything but sit and listen. When the Sunday service is simply a time to sit quietly, hear some good music and a good sermon, sing a hymn and then go home to eat dinner, no wonder many of our people get confused into thinking that Christ only wants passive admirers rather than active followers.”[2]

The ultimate destination for worship tourists and travelers may be exactly the same. But the connection for the tourist is usually shallow and fleeting. The connection for the traveler, however, is always deep and continuous. The worship tourist endures the journey in order to reach the destination, while the traveler values the journey as part of the destination.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we move our congregants from passive spectators to active participators?
  • What are we presently doing that may be discouraging or encouraging participative worship?
  • What are some of those worship-leadership elements we should be asking congregants to do so our leaders aren’t doing everything for them?
  • How will we know if we are accomplishing our goal of more congregational worship participation?

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 52.

[2] William H. Willimon, Preaching and Leading Worship (Philadelphia: West- minster, 1984), 20.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Apr 19 2021

10 Worship Leading Fails

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failureWorship-leading novices and aging veterans have all looked back at certain Sundays with a deep longing for another chance to do or handle things differently. It would be impossible to go back and make corrections to many of those leadership and relationship failures. We do, however, have the opportunity for another chance to get it right this Sunday. One way to learn from the past in order to influence the future is to anticipate and head-off some of the following mistakes before they are made.

 

  1. Trying to fix relationships with music

Leading music doesn’t necessarily equate to leading people. We’ll never be able to teach enough new songs to make up for leadership and relationship failures. What will our congregations remember most about our worship leadership…how we led them musically while on the platform or how we ministered to them off the platform? Musical talent and platform presence may help us secure a worship leading position but developing relationship skills will help us keep it.

  1. Flying Solo

Most of us have enough musical talent to succeed alone for a while. The time will come, however, when the inherent risks of trying to do it alone will cause us to fail, also alone. So if we try to receive all the credit when something works, we’ll also receive all the credit when something doesn’t. If we never involve our congregants as more than casual bystanders while we read, speak, sing, play, pray, testify, lead, mediate, commune, baptize, confess, thank, petition and exhort, then how can we expect them to transform from passive spectators to active participators?

  1. Singing too much

Music is an expression given to us so that we might offer it to God in worship. But it is not the only expression or even the primary expression. Considering Scripture, Prayer and the Lord’s Supper as foundational instead of supplemental worship elements could alleviate the pressure on music to serve as the primary driver of worship renewal and consequently diminish its solitary blame for worship conflict.

  1. Trying to be the bride

Ushers play a key role in the wedding ceremony but they must have enough humility to acknowledge they aren’t and won’t ever be the bride. Like ushers, worship leaders must be willing to take a secondary role in order to help others find their place in the service without coercion or force but instead by humbly encouraging participants to accompany them.

  1. Inviting God to show up

Worship isn’t our attempt to be with the Father, it is our response to having been with the Father. We often take credit for instigating God’s presence by what we sing or how we sing it. But He started the conversation, was present long before we arrived, and has been waiting patiently for us to acknowledge Him. So, worship doesn’t invite God’s presence, it acknowledges it.

  1. Leading by comparison

The potential for worship leading envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find other leaders who are younger, play guitar better, sing with more passion or have a better platform presence. Contentment is leading the ministry God has given you. Comparison is envying the ministry you wish He had given you. It is tempting to look to the left or right to see how we measure up. Instead, we must run this race by keeping our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

  1. Talking too much

Worship service elements and song sets often require meaningful verbal transitions and yet, we rarely prepare for or even think about those transitions until it is time to make them. The result is often a long-winded holding pattern of circular discourse including clichés, detours, and verbosity. Successful worship verbal communicators know the flight plan and how to land the plane before leaving the runway.

  1. Confusing calling and convenience

If we are leading worship every Sunday just because we love to play and sing, because we need to supplement our income, because we enjoy being up-front, or because we are not trained to do anything else, then our worship leading compulsion might be out of convenience instead of calling. A calling is a personal invitation from God to carry out a unique task. And it is not always convenient. Convenience says, “This is what I was trained to do.”  Calling says, “This is what I was created to do.”

  1. Segregating grandparents and grandchildren

We often divide our congregations along age and affinity lines in an effort to appease multiple generations and minimize conflict. Except in rare cases, it appears that the worshiping community suffers and all generations lose. It is beneficial for all generations when grandparents and grandchildren get to worship together. But it’s only possible when battle lines are drawn over who can offer or give the most instead of who deserves or demands the most.

  1. Leading worship as an event

If our worship leadership conveys that worship starts when we start it and ends when we end it; if we expend all resources and energy preparing for and leading a single hour on Sunday and have nothing left to encourage worship the other hours of the week; if we aren’t exhorting our congregations and modeling for them how to worship not only when we gather but also when we disperse; then we are leading worship as an event. Worship is a daily process, not a weekly event. What occurs on Sunday should be an overflow of what has already occurred during the week.

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Apr 5 2021

Is Your Worship Out of Tune?

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Being unified is the state of being united, linked, or joined together as one in spite of diversities and differences. Uniformity, however, is the state or quality of being the same. A healthy worshipping congregation and the worship team that leads it require unity but not necessarily uniformity.

A tuning fork is a u-shaped acoustic resonator made from an elastic metal. Its tines vibrate at a constant pitch by striking them against a hard surface. Once struck, a tuning fork emits a pure musical tone that is used as a standard to tune a variety of instruments.

A standard is the basis or model to which something else should be compared. It is determined by those in authority as a rule for measuring the quality or value of something.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow.[1] What is the standard to which your worship is tuned?

Your worship is out of tune . . .

  • If what’s in it for me is your standard.
  • If coat and tie or untucked shirt and jeans is your standard.
  • If hymns or modern worship songs are your standard.
  • If the styles of another congregation or artist are your standard.
  • If musical excellence alone is your standard.
  • If worship band, orchestra, choir, or worship team is your standard.
  • If when and where you worship is your standard.
  • If fixed or free liturgy is your standard.
  • If the creativity of novelty or the comfort of nostalgia is your standard.

But if your standard is instead who, why, and in what power we worship—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then your worship will always be perfectly tuned.[2] According to Paul, being unified is living together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel (Phil 1:27). We can exercise a variety of different worship gifts, callings, and styles and still be unified as long as our root solidarity is not our worship expressions but the gospel.

Art professor Sam Van Aken combined art and farming to develop an incredible Tree of 40 Fruit. He bought an orchard that was about to be shut down and spent several years chip grafting a variety of trees onto a single fruit tree. In the spring, Van Aken’s tree is a stunning patchwork of multicolored blossoms, producing fruit such as plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and almonds. The roots of each of these trees are united even though the fruit or outward expressions are diverse. Each tree offers just the right amount of each of forty varieties.[3]

The Apostle Paul said it this way to the church at Corinth, “Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many” (1 Cor 12:12). “Certainly, the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,’ does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, ‘I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,’ does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like God wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body” (1 Cor 12:14-20).

 

[1] A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Vancouver, BC: Eremitical Press, 2009), 90.

[2] Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 90.

[3] Science Alert Staff, “This Magical Tree Produces 40 Different Types of Fruit,” ScienceAlert, June 22, 2018, https://www.sciencealert.com/40-types-of-fruit-tree-artwork-van-aken-2018.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Mar 22 2021

Pulpit Envy

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No matter how large or small, every church should be developing distinctly and becoming uniquely the congregation God has called them to be. Loving the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves are never contingent on congregational size or abilities. It is instead our offering of all we have at that time and all we are in that moment.[1]

The potential for ministry envy is high since we don’t have to look very far to find another church with larger ministries, more celebrity, an edgier band, or a pastor with better communication skills and platform presence than ours. Ministry envy is irrational and covetous discontent as the result of another’s perceived superior qualities, advantages, achievements, and successes. So, instead of being willing to champion the ministry successes of our colleagues in other churches, we assume and even publicly claim that those successes must only have been possible through stylistic superficialities, biblical shallowness, or theological compromise.

When we pastor from an attitude of envy our churches will never measure up because of what we are trying every Sunday to measure up to. To measure up means to be as good as, to have the same qualifications as, to reach a certain standard as, to be of high enough quality for, or to compare with something or someone else. Trying to measure up to the ministries of another congregation can be like running on a treadmill. As long as we keep our eyes focused ahead, we can log miles safely. But when we look to the left or right to see  how we measure up, our feet follow our eyes and cause us to veer off course or even wipeout. The writer of Hebrews said it this way: let’s run the race that is laid out in front of us and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter (Heb 12:1-2).

Comparing the ministries of our church to that of another congregation means we are trying to measure up to a standard God has called them to, not the one he has called us to. And God obviously sees the value of our calling even in those seasons when we don’t. Keeping our eyes on Jesus instead of others means we lead with contentment, not comparison. It’s a discipline that is not always fun and even seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those of us trained by it (Heb 12:11).

We could learn a lot from MacGyver, the main character in an action-adventure television series that ran for several seasons in the 1980s. The show followed secret agent Angus MacGyver as he solved complex situations with everyday materials. Using common items on hand, MacGyver was able to find clever and often unbelievable solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems.

Offering what we have is not settling for mediocrity, nor is it a license for laziness. We still need to pray that God would send more people, stronger leaders, a stellar worship band, and greater opportunities to influence our community and the world. But like MacGyver, we can’t wait until all of the people and pieces are in place to respond to our calling. Instead, we have to create something unbelievable with what God has made available.

 

[1] David Manner, “Small Church MacGyvers,” Worshipleader: Pursuing the Mission of God in Worship, July/August 2015, 14–16. Portions of this article first appeared in this magazine article.

The above post is adapted from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Feb 15 2021

A Letter to the Younger Worship Leading Me

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Dear Younger Worship Leading Me,

In a few decades you are going to look back at your years of worship ministry with a desire for a second chance to handle some things differently. You will think about certain services, special events, entire seasons of ministry, or strained relationships and long for another opportunity to make some adjustments.

The reality is that it will be impossible for you to go back and make corrections to most of those situations. But with a little humility, resilience, and resolve now, you have an opportunity to get some of them right the first time. So here are a few things you are going to learn.

Surround yourself with those people who will stretch your thinking and actions but also hold you accountable. Taking necessary risks might cause you to make some mistakes, but the discernment of others will help protect you from your own stupidity. It might be exhilarating when you succeed alone, but it won’t be when you fail alone. And you will sometimes fail.

People will always remember how you treat them when you’re off the platform more than how you lead them on the platform, so learn more people’s names than new songs. Consider interruptions as divine appointments instead of distractions. Drink more coffee with senior adults and ask their opinions before initiating change. Be more patient with needy people and chronic takers. And remember to thank those who make sacrifices to invest in you, your family, and your ministry.

Be on the front end of learning new musical and technological languages. But don’t assume it’s always appropriate to be an early adopter of them. Being conversant in a language doesn’t mean it should be used when it doesn’t fit the voice of your congregation. Learn more theology than musicology, and practice leadership development more than you practice your guitar.

Always ask how something might impact your family before asking how it might impact your worship leading. Leave more things at the office when you go home, and be home when you are home. Taking a Sabbath each week will not only help your spiritual and physical health but also help the relational health of your family.

Stay longer instead of bailing for a new place of ministry every couple of years. If your ministry frequently moves your children away from their friends and foundations, then how can you expect them to like church when they are no longer required to attend?

What you know about worship leading now won’t be enough to sustain you through your entire ministry. Read more, study more, and ask more questions. Be a lifelong learner who understands it is never too soon or too late to learn something new.

Finally, I know it is sometimes overwhelming to balance the stresses of ministry and family. When leading worship is discouraging, when it seems like no generation is ever completely happy, when you can’t sing too many or too few hymns or modern worship songs, and when you wake up on Monday morning and wonder if this is really worth it, you can rest assured that you’ll also be able to look back at those decades of ministry and acknowledge with certainty that it was.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What worship-leading situation or relationship failure that occurred in the past would we handle differently if we had the chance?
  • What safeguards could we put in place to make sure the same situation doesn’t occur again?
  • How successful are we at stretching one another’s thinking and holding one another accountable?
  • With our limited time together to get ready for Sunday, how can we continue to learn new worship principles and practices in addition to new songs?

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Jan 11 2021

Sunday Worship: Starting a Fire From Scratch

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In the 2000 movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks played Chuck Noland, the lone survivor of a plane crash on an uninhabited island. Early in the movie, Noland realized he couldn’t survive without fire and offered us a glimpse of his resolve, despair, anger, and even humor as he labored over trying to start a fire from scratch.

Worship leaders can experience similar emotions when they are expected to light a fire each Sunday with the opening song. And even though congregants might not have done anything to help stir those embers during the week themselves, how easily they can blame the music or musicians when the spark is not there.

Worship leaders and the songs they lead alone can’t light a fire in us or usher us into the presence of God; the death and resurrection of Jesus already has. When we ascribe that power to earthly leaders, we begin to see their leadership as something that is meritorious or efficacious, meaning their actions are praised for what they can produce.[1] Those worship actions can indeed prompt, exhort, encourage, and remind us of God’s presence, but they can’t create or lead us into it.

God’s presence isn’t a physical place we attend or an emotional plane we achieve; we don’t go to it, sing it into existence, light it, or usher people into it. Instead, we have confidence to enter that holy place only by the blood of Jesus. And as our mediator, Jesus is not only the object of our worship but also the facilitator of it.

If we are not careful, our actions can imply that time-and-place worship is the primary if not only venue for worship, while the remainder of our life falls into another category.[2] Every Sunday can then end up being a frustrating exercise in trying to start a fire from scratch or usher congregants into the presence of God.

Because of the laborious task of fire-starting, ancient nomadic people began to use earthenware vessels called fire pots. They would carry embers or slow-burning fires in these pots with them as they traveled from one location to another. Just by adding small amounts of kindling for fuel, they could keep those mini fires alive, enabling them to quickly ignite larger fires when they united as a group for their evening camps.

John the Evangelist wrote, “This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: ‘God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.’ If we claim, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin” (1 John 1:5-7).

So, instead of seeing worship as a new fire to start each week, what if we saw it as a flame or light that can be taken with us? Then it could continue as we leave the service. It could happen in our homes, at our schools, through our work, and in our culture. It couldn’t be contained in a single location, context, culture, style, artistic expression, or vehicle of communication. Consequently, instead of depending on our worship leaders to start the fire from scratch when we gather each week, they could just help us fan those flames that already exist.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What changes must we make in how we lead if our congregation expects us to light a worship fire from scratch each week?
  • If continuous worship is our goal, then how do we train our congregation to take that worship spark with them when they leave?
  • What might our worship look like when we gather on Sunday if our congregants have been continuous worshippers during the week?
  • What language could we use to send worshippers out for continuous worship?

[1] D. A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 50.
[2] Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the
Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 9.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Dec 9 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 7 2020

Worship Farm Teams

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Congregations tend to plan and implement in the moment since Sunday comes every single week. So, thinking about keeping younger players or finding future players, singers, or even a primary worship leader is rarely a consideration until a vacancy occurs.

“Player development” is what Major League Baseball calls the grooming of younger, less advanced players in their minor league system. The so-called farm teams provide mentoring, training, coaching, and practical experience for younger players with the expectation that as those players mature, they will advance to a higher level of play and responsibility.

The genius of the farm system is that players get better by playing regularly in smaller venues instead of just waiting for an opening to play in the major leagues. Teams are intentionally investing in younger players for the future. A major-league team with a weak farm system may have success for a time but will rarely carry that success into the future.

The value of worship player development is realized when a congregation attempts to fill a vacancy in their worship-leading team. What most find is that the pool of potential replacements out there is often very shallow. Those who are available are sometimes unknown and don’t always resonate with the culture of the searching congregation.

Implementing a farm-team model of grooming or developing younger, less advanced players from in here can offer a trusted and familiar resource pool for future players, singers, or primary leaders. Investing in those who already understand the culture, personality, worship language, and mission of your church has a far greater potential for future success.

Our success in worship ministry will be judged not just on how well we did it ourselves each Sunday, but on how well we helped train others to do it too. If churches want great worship leaders in the future, they must invest in not-yet-great worship leaders in the present.

Imagine then, one of those congregations so effectively implementing this player-development model that they are able to groom more worship leaders than they actually have places for them to serve. Then imagine the kingdom value of that congregation getting to farm-out those trained leaders to other congregations who were not as prepared to fill their own vacancies.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What system do we presently have in place to secure players, singers, and tech substitutes when team members are absent?
  • How are we encouraging younger artists to develop their skills for potential worship leadership in the future?
  • Within the limitations of our budget, leadership, and facilities, how can we implement a formal or informal training process for younger worship leaders?
  • What opportunities do we have or can we create for younger leaders to use their gifts publicly before they are ready to lead in the primary worship services?

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Nov 30 2020

Scriptureless Worship

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A worship service without Scripture reading may not be worship at all.

By limiting Scripture to a single reading prior to the pastoral exhortation, we may be unwittingly implying that we are placing a higher level of credibility in the exhortation than in the Word itself. It may then convey a lack of trust in the very Word professed to be foundational to our faith, doctrines, and practices. If Scripture can’t stand on its own, then we can’t possibly prop it up with our own words.

Robert Webber in Ancient-Future Worship wrote, “We are nourished in worship by Jesus Christ, who is the living Word disclosed to us in the Scriptures, the written Word of God. In spite of all the emphasis we evangelicals have placed on the importance of the Bible, there seems to be a crisis of the Word among us.”[1]

Congregations continue to struggle in their understanding of spirit and truth worship by maximizing music and depending on it alone to encourage worship renewal. At the same time those congregations often minimize the very root from which our songs must spring. John Frame offers two truths that highlight the value of God’s word in our worship: “First, where God’s Word is, God is. We should never take God’s Word for granted. To hear the Word of God is to meet with God himself. Second, where God is, the Word is. We should not seek to have an experience with God which bypasses or transcends his Word.”[2]

The dialogue of worship is formed when God’s word is revealed. This revelation causes worshippers to respond through the prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-15; 1 Thess 1:5). The result is a vertical conversation with God and horizontal communion with others. This dialogue develops a community that congregations have been desperately trying to create and recreate through their songs alone.

Some of the crisis of the Word is a result of our standing over the Bible and reading God’s narrative from outside instead of standing within the narrative and reading Scripture from the inside.[3] Reading Scripture as insiders helps us realize the text is not just describing someone else’s story in history but also describing the story of my life, my hope, my joy, my sin, and my journey away from and to God.[4]

As an elementary school teacher, my wife often reads or tells stories to her students to enhance auditory learning, encourage creativity, promote informational development, and advance knowledge. With imagination beyond my comprehension she is able to create stories and insert the names of her classroom children into the narrative, considering the personality and nature of each child. This narrative approach to reading and telling moves the children beyond just hearing the words to actually living inside those words.

When Scripture is read, when it is illuminated in our preaching, when it is incorporated into our prayers of thanksgiving and lament, when it frames the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and when we sing its text in a unified voice, Scripture becomes a means by which we are gathered into the body of the living Lord.[5]

Scripture must be foundational to our songs, sermons, prayers, verbal transitions, and even ministry announcements. It must be frequently, variously, generationally, and culturally read and allowed to stand on its own. When that occurs, our congregations will leave in-here worship, with the text in their hearts and on their lips, for nonstop worship out there.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How often are we reading Scripture in our worship services beyond the text for pastoral exhortation?
  • How might we encourage our congregation to not only hear the words of Scripture but also live inside those words?
  • Who usually reads Scripture in our services? Are we enlisting multiple generations, genders, and cultures as readers?
  • What filters should we put in place to help us determine if Scripture is primary instead of secondary in our worship services?

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 113.

[2] John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 90.

[3] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 113–14.

[4] Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 130.

[5] John Burgess, “Why Scripture Matters: Reading the Bible in a Time of Church Conflict,” in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 66.

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Nov 18 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 2 2020

Worship Is a Conversation…So, When Do We Shut Up and Listen?

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listenOur worship actions in any audible form can mute the voice of God sometimes only detected in the silence. In doing so, we can miss his healing, comforting, and encouraging words of hope such as “I am with you; well done; you are forgiven; and I am weeping with you.”

Worship is a dialogue or conversation between God and his people. God initiates that conversation and we respond to it. So, worship requires not only speaking and singing as a response but also listening and hearing as a response. The noise of our worship actions can create monological instead of dialogical worship. In other words, offering one-sided worship sound can monopolize the conversation, potentially causing us to miss hearing the voice of God.

A healthy conversation includes a balance of listening as well as speaking. Gary Furr and Milburn Price wrote, “In the drama of the Christian life, worship may be thought of as the script through which the author of us all calls forth and responds to the deepest and most important longings in us.”[1] So, until we occasionally shut up and listen, how can we hear that call?

God’s revelation occurs when he offers us a glimpse of his activity, his will, and his attributes. Our response is the sometimes spontaneous and sometimes premeditated reply to that call…worship. But we can miss his activity, will, and attributes if we monopolize the conversation by filling our worship with responsive noise only.

Richard Foster wrote, “Silence frees us from the need to control others. One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others. A frantic stream of words flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence is one of the deepest spiritual disciplines simply because it puts the stopper on that.”[2]

Since God began the conversation and graciously invited us to join Him in it, our worship then could be enhanced when we stop making so much noise. In order to listen again to his side of the conversation, maybe we should concur with Samuel when he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:8).


[1]Gary A. Furr and Milburn Price, The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), 90.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 68.

Some of the above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Oct 19 2020

A Modern Parable for Worship Leaders

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matthewThe Master Worship Leader called three novices with various gifts, passions, and capabilities to lead worship in three churches with distinct characteristics and needs.

To the first novice worship leader the Master gave a worship band that included five stellar players on rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard.

To the second novice worship leader the Master gave an aging rockabilly guitarist and a high school cajon player.

And to the third novice worship leader the Master gave a long-retired kindergarten teacher to play hymns as long as they weren’t in sharps.

So the Master entrusted the three novices to fulfill their unique worship callings in equally unique and sometimes challenging church settings.

The first novice realized his church wouldn’t be able to begin more services or plant additional churches until new players were trained. He encouraged his original band members to give lessons to younger players so they’d be available for new plants and as substitute players throughout the year. He also began a school of the arts to cultivate younger players so his church could share some of those players with several smaller churches in their community.

The second novice quickly realized rockabilly didn’t fit the worship voice of his congregation so he used some of his worship budget to invest in more nuanced worship guitar lessons for his rockabilly guitarist and one of his rockabilly band associates. And since the high school cajon player would graduate in a year, he was asked to train a younger middle schooler to serve as his replacement upon graduation.

The third novice coasted, surfed ministry placement sites, went to conferences with his resume in hand, and waited for the Master to call him to a more favorable position.

The Master checked in with the three novices to see how they were responding to his unique call in their unique settings.

The novice with five players showed the Master how he had doubled the number of players originally entrusted to him. So the Master commended him: “Good work! It’s obvious you are not just a musician but also a leader of worship and worshipers. You are a worthy ministry servant that can be trusted with more.”

The novice with two players showed the Master how he had invested in the skills of existing players and trained younger players for the future. So the Master celebrated with him: “Great job! It’s obvious you aren’t doing this alone and value the calling and gifts of others. You are a model of servant leadership ready for additional responsibilities.”

The novice with one player said, “Master, I know you have high worship standards and are not pleased with poor musicianship. And since no other players here at my church can live up to those expectations, I have been doing it all myself. I’ve been waiting for you to call me to another church with more skilled players who appreciate my musical prowess.”

The Master was angry and disappointed at this response so he asked the third novice two final questions: “If you knew I was after high worship standards, then why haven’t you been trying to achieve them where I called you with what I gave you? And if you haven’t been giving your best to this place where I called you now and have been saving it for where you hope I will call you next, then why would I want to?”

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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Sep 21 2020

Cheap Worship

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

When Jesus engaged the Samaritan woman at the well, the conversation moved from the physical (thirst) to the spiritual (living water). She attempted to change the subject back to the physical of the where and how of worship, but Jesus turned the conversation again to her spiritual condition and the who of worship: “God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

Once the woman encountered and acknowledged Jesus, she joined his conversation instead of expecting him to join hers. This divine encounter inspired her to sacrifice the self-serving agenda that originally brought her to that place. She left her water pot and went into the city and said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ” (John 4:29)?

The result of the Samaritan woman’s worship response was, “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’” (John 4:39).

In the book of Romans, Paul focused on the divisions by which we segregate ourselves. In the twelfth chapter he wrote, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Rom. 12:1). Sacrifice is surrendering for the sake of something or someone. It is the act of giving up, offering up, or letting go. A baseball bunt is a sacrifice for the sole purpose of advancing another runner. Executing this sacrifice is called laying down a bunt.

We go to great lengths and personal expense to make sure our children and grandchildren have the best clothes, schools, lessons, and coaches. We begin economizing and genericizing the moment they are born in order to save money and set it aside for the best of college educations. We surrender our own personal wants, preferences, and even needs so that they will have everything necessary for a successful future. In fact, most of us would literally give our own lives for our children and grandchildren because no sacrifice is too great—except maybe when we’re asked to sacrifice our worship music preferences.

Sacrificing our preferences often requires us to adjust generationally and relationally. Terry York and David Bolin wrote, “We have forgotten that what worship costs is more important than how worship comforts us or how it serves our agendas. If worship costs us nothing but is fashioned to comfort our needs and preferences, it may not be worship at all.”[1]

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What are we as worship leaders willing to sacrifice as our spiritual act of worship?
  • How might the way we select and lead songs be contributing to an attitude of worship comfort instead of cost?
  • How can we make sure we are not asking the same generations or cultures always to be the ones who sacrifice the most?
  • How do we keep the cultural attitude of entitlement out of our worship services?

 

[1] Terry W. York and C. David Bolin, The Voice of Our Congregation: Seeking and Celebrating God’s Song for Us (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 112.

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Sep 14 2020

Worship Experience…An Oxymoron

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released tomorrow, September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Marketing is an intentional process of identifying who the consumer is, determining the wants and needs of that consumer, and offering a product that satisfies those wants and needs in order to secure their loyalty.

Marketers have realized that consumers no longer just want to buy a product; they also want to buy an experience with that product. In fact, sometimes the experience is much better than the product. Think about some of those pizza arcades where you celebrated your children’s birthday. Fortunately the experience was memorable; the pizza certainly wasn’t. Instead of just purchasing a cup of coffee, many of us also now want the experience of purchasing a cup of coffee. We are even willing to pay extra for the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience. It’s an added bonus to that experience when the barista knows your name.

Social media has contributed to an experiential consumerism marketing culture in which our posting experience is enhanced by the number of likes, shares, retweets, or comments. Those of us who are social media aficionados have learned how to market our posts to encourage a more favorable experience. Some of us plan and lead worship the same way.

In an effort to entice more participation, churches offer worship service preferential experiences to get consumers in the door, sometimes even at the expense of quality or honesty. These marketing headlines attract visitors with words such as traditional, contemporary, blended, friendly, family, fellowship, multisensory, relevant, modern, casual, classic, or even coffee. But when guests realize worship is something you give, not something you get, how will we encourage them to stay? If we market just by catering to experiential tastes, what will we offer when their tastes change?

We can experience a fine meal. We can experience a baseball game, concert, or amusement park. An experience is an event or occurrence. We even call what we do on Sunday a worship experience. But an experience is something that is done to us or for us. Worship is something we do.

We don’t experience worship . . . we experience God. Our response to that experience is worship. We can experience the many facets of God inside or outside a worship service, but the experience or encounter is not worship, our response is. A worship service built on an experience alone is incomplete if it never allows us an opportunity to respond.

Depending on worship as an experience can cause us to be satisfied with the sensations elicited by that experience. Consequently, we might select and sing certain songs or even styles of songs because of the experience and then never move beyond that experience to worship. Again, as with social media posts, there is a danger that we might select our songs and sermons in response to positive, negative, or no feedback. And if those songs and sermons don’t create and re-create that same experience each week, we can leave a worship service believing worship couldn’t and didn’t occur.

TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How can we offer creative worship opportunities without our services deteriorating into experiential consumerism?
  • What is the difference between experiencing worship and experiencing God?
  • How can we demonstrate to our congregation the difference between God’s revelation and our response?
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Sep 7 2020

Songs That Preach

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released next week on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Preaching is the act of publicly proclaiming, teaching, or making something known. It exhorts, exposits, affirms, corrects, advocates, instructs, responds, and applies. The act of preaching communicates to us, for us, and through us.

A sermon is preached to address and expound on the biblical, theological, doctrinal, and moral issues that impact every generation of every congregation each and every day. And this connectional discourse is intended to challenge those congregants not only to embrace these truths individually but also corporately.

So if the worship songs we select aren’t complementing, resonating, and emulating these same characteristics, we probably need to select different songs. In other words, our songs must also preach.

The Preaching Characteristics of Our Songs

  • Our Songs must reflect and respond to biblical text.

Scripture must organically yield our songs instead of just fertilizing our own contrived language. We must constantly ask if our song text is theologically sound and if it affirms Scripture as central. Songs that do not provoke a response to the Word don’t preach.

  • Our Songs must connect the Word of God to the people of God.

The dialogue of worship through our songs is formed when God’s Word is revealed. This revelation causes the people of God to respond through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The result is a vertical conversation with God and horizontal communion with others. Our songs are the communally uttered words of God.

  • Our Songs must speak the Gospel.

Every song we sing must invite the congregation and guests to be a part of God’s story through Jesus Christ. Our songs should help us understand what God is up to in and through our lives in the name of Jesus. Those songs must sing of the ongoing and enduring work of God through his son, Jesus Christ. And they must constantly remind us that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

  • Our Songs must be easy to follow and understand.

If congregants can’t follow our songs, then they have difficulty finding value in those songs and consequently can’t be influenced and moved to respond to them and through them. Archaic or colloquial text should be filtered and melodies should be evaluated for singability. Songs that are difficult to follow contribute to ineffectual song sermons.

  • Our Songs must be sung with integrity.

Songs that preach communicate biblically, theologically, and doctrinally. Our songs must be sung with the integrity of adequate external preparation that springs forth from internal conviction. It must be evident that our songs reflect what we believe and practice. Lives must replicate the texts we sing even when we aren’t singing them. Songs sung with integrity engage and express biblical text with inspiration and conviction.

  • Our Songs must engage more than emotions.

Scripture encourages us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Songs that just stir the emotions are incomplete; Songs that do not begin from the depth of our soul are often trite; Songs that don’t require us to think are shallow; and Songs that don’t ask us to use our bodies as a living sacrifice in acts of service are selfish. So our songs must be sung from our entire being.

  • Our Songs must encourage action.

Songs must not only inspire us through our hearing but also challenge us in our doing. They must not only inform the congregation but also engage them. Singing our songs should cause us to ask what is going to change as a result of singing them. Singing in here is not enough until our songs also impact who we are out there. So the songs we sing in our worship service must lead us to acts of service as worship.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16

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Jul 21 2020

Better Sundays Begin on Monday: Book Excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press.

Better Sundays Begin on Monday is scheduled to be released on September 15. Print and E-Version copies are available for Pre-Order at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

Breaking down game film is a discipline sports teams often incorporate after each game. They review and discuss game videos in order to identify mistakes, make adjustments, consider radical changes, and highlight successes. The ultimate goal of this type of analysis is to facilitate individual and team improvements that will positively affect subsequent games.

The fundamental reason why a team needs adjustments is not always evident in the middle of the game. Breaking down or evaluating all of the important elements after a game gives coaches and players the opportunity to isolate and assess individual plays and players in a more relaxed setting, away from the time constraints and pressures of the game.

So why aren’t individual pastors, worship leaders, and even worship leading teams regularly incorporating similar evaluative practices? One of the primary reasons is that implementing an individual or collaborative process of analyzing worship services or planning for upcoming services requires a deep level of humility, trust, and shared accountability. It also requires selfless leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own ideas, preferences, and interests for the greater worshipping good of the congregation.

Initiating a similar approach to worship evaluation can be summative in that a congregation can learn from its previous worship failures and successes. But it can also be formative since it occurs during the development and conceptual worship service stages. Both outcomes will help you or your team first determine why you worship before ever considering how you worship.

Worship renewal must be determined first by standardizing worship principles before ever considering worship practices. The reality is that worship service evaluation is already occurring in the hallways, parking lots, and at lunch tables after our services. So why wouldn’t we want to preempt those conversations with an intentional evaluative process?

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Jun 8 2020

Singing in Regathered Worship: Want or Need?

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Want is something we desire, hope for, or wish for. Need is something essential to survive. We want to sing both congregationally and chorally in our worship services as we regather but we don’t need to sing for worship to occur. So even if we want to sing and can’t or can’t as much, we still need to find other ways to worship. 

Singing is an expression given to us so that we might offer it as a gift to God in worship but it certainly isn’t the only expression. So considering additional worship responses could alleviate the pressure on singing to serve as the primary driver of regathered worship.

Clayton Schmit wrote, “In most traditions, music holds the central place as, to use Luther’s term, the ‘handmaid of the Gospel.’ Whether Christians sing hymns, settings of the psalms, spiritual songs, anthems, or praise choruses, music is the principle artistic form that shapes Christian worship. But, many others are involved. We gather in architectural structures, we enter rooms sunlit cobalt and ruby through stained-glass filtered light, we sit in well-fashioned furniture, we listen to literature of the Scriptures, we hear aesthetically crafted messages, we move in processions, and we view images of the symbols and historic figures associated with our faith. When we gather for worship art is all around us, and even within us.”[1]

Because of limited space and congregational demographics, however, some churches will determine it is best not to sing chorally or maybe even congregationally for a while. Worship leaders in those churches will, consequently, have to educate, reeducate, enlighten, and exhort their congregations that worship without singing doesn’t have to be inferior, it just has to be different. 

Robin M. Jensen said, too often other worship expressions are perceived as a kind of extra offering, meant for those of us who can appreciate them or want to be involved in them, rather than something essential to the shaping of faith and religious experience.[2] So when introducing those new worship expressions beyond singing, leaders will need to take risks through Holy Spirit inspired entrepreneurial innovation instead of routinized imitation. They’ll need to become worship artisans instead of assembly line workers.

If your church can’t sing or can’t sing as much for a season, then consider expanding some of these responses: Scripture, prayer, drama, painting, sculpting, drawing, dance, mime, poetry, prose, monologues or dramatic readings, photography, film, technology, computer graphics, architecture, sound, lighting, staging and props, and many others.

Harold Best offers this challenge that can serve as a reminder of our responsibilities as leaders in this new season of regathering, “It is the solemn obligation of every artistic leader to become the lead mentor, the lead shepherd, living a life in quest of the full richness of artistic action. The art of our worship must thus point beyond itself. It must freely and strongly say, ‘There is more, far more.’ Be hungry. Be thirsty. Be curious. Be unsatisfied. Go deep. Engage your whole being. Live in the first days of creation when nothing had precedent; when everything was a surprise; when shattering reality, not sameness, ruled the day; when bafflement and surprise danced the dance. Go to the empty tomb and find out what resurrection means to the shriveled mind and the uncurious heart. Go to Pentecost and learn of a new, ingathering strangeness, a purification of Babel and a highway to glory: spiritual glory, societal glory, artistic glory. Seek and find; knock and it will be opened.”[3]

 

[1] Schmit, Clayton J., “Art for Faith’s Sake,” in Theology, News, and Notes, Fall 2001.

[2] Jensen, Robin, M., The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 2.

[3] Best, Harold M., “Authentic Worship and Artistic Action,” an address to the Calvin Institute of Worship, 2005.

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Jun 1 2020

How Can Social Distanced Worship Be Good?

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Even before the COVID-19 physical shutdown of gathered worship services, congregations were constantly trying to discover and create good worship. So, they expanded their song catalogs and adjusted their presentation methods in an effort to find a formula to help them accomplish that goal. Some just bypassed the heavy lifting altogether by imitating the worship practices of other congregations and called it good.

But as congregations are starting to regather with new limitation guidelines, those conversation of “what is good worship” in this new reality have radically changed. Social distancing, masks while singing, a smaller critical mass of gathered congregants, and the potential absence of choral and instrumental music has moved the conversation way beyond song catalogs and presentation methods.

If we begin with Scripture, however, to figure out what good worship is we are always returned to those worship principles that should be framing our worship practices. The principles haven’t changed even when our practices have. So as long as we begin with those principles, then our distanced, masked, and choirless worship practices can still be considered good.

Scripture speaks to the issue of worship that is or isn’t good on several occasions. The book of Isaiah outlined worship God doesn’t like when the author wrote, “The Lord said: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service, yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me” (Isa. 29:13).

Amos criticized worship that is ego driven when he wrote, “I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

The minor prophet Micah faced similar challenges as he responded to the shallow worship practices evident in the lives of the religious leaders of his day. He vigorously condemned the dishonest, corrupt and meaningless worship prevalent in Judah and Israel. According to Micah, outward appearances indicated they thought their worship was good. But their worship character wasn’t consistent with what God calls good. So, Micah wrote, “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).

Discovering good worship in this new reality means we will have to lay aside the unflappable pursuit of our own satisfaction, entertainment, pleasure, or routine in order to pursue God and ask him to reorder our priorities and passions. It’s going to be a new and different process than we have been used to and it will require us all to be stimulated by God’s grace and imagination.[1]

So what we once considered good worship may no longer be feasible for a season as our congregations gather again. But just because it is no longer the same doesn’t necessarily mean it can no longer be good.

 

[1] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Books, 2007), 170-71.

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Apr 22 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 13 2020

Was Easter Sunday a Waste of Time?

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The Easter Acclamation, “He is risen,” “He is risen indeed” was not only true as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it is also true as we work online from home today. The celebration of Easter is not just a one-day event, it is a daily remembrance of who we are in the risen Christ. As Christ followers we are Easter people so instead of immediately pivoting to the next sermon series or Sunday service calendar emphasis, shouldn’t our celebration of the resurrection continue?

The observance of Easter in the early church was more than just a one-day annual event. Celebrating the Paschal mystery was not only to remember that Christ was crucified and rose again, but also to remember that He appeared following His resurrection, that He ascended, that the Holy Spirit descended and that our Savior promised to return again.

Because of their great joy, early Christians began the celebration and remembrance with Easter and continued for fifty days until Pentecost. Revisiting the mystery and expanding the understanding of the resurrection could assist in worship renewal through the theological realization that this celebration of redemption, sanctification, salvation and victory can’t be limited to a single day.

Some congregations and even entire denominations have not traditionally embraced the sacred time of the Great Fifty Days of Easter and other dates of the Christian calendar primarily out of a concern for rigidity, conformity, loss of autonomy or a fear of appearing too “Catholic.”

Some worship leaders and worshipers believe that spending too much time in those extended seasonal celebrations of the Church can promote sameness. But Timothy Carson wrote, “Exactly the opposite may be true. Because it has stood the test of time, it may be sufficiently deep to allow me to swim more deeply in it. Because it is repeated, I have another chance, today, to go where I could not go yesterday.”[1]

Even as congregations avoid the Christian calendar, they are at the same time affirming annual observances of cultural and denominational days whose foundations are not always biblically grounded.[2] And isn’t it ironic that in the development of those denominational and cultural calendars we have in fact created our own liturgies in our efforts to be non-liturgical?

To avoid Christian calendar days that are celebrated during the same time of the year as the cultural, denominational and civic days is to ignore the very foundation of the Church. So isn’t it possible to converge holidays significant to our cultural and denominational calendar with the Christian holidays significant to the Kingdom?

Why couldn’t we celebrate Mother’s Day, Graduation Sunday and Memorial Day in the same season as Ascension Day and Pentecost? For this shift to occur, however, we must understand the significance of expanding our Easter remembrances. Laurence Hull Stookey wrote, “The explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.”[3]

Extending our Easter recognition is based on a deeper understanding of the calendar as an ideal starting point for structuring seasonal worship. The theme of the fifty days of Easter as one single celebration provides a connection with Christians of the past Church and unifies Christians of the present Church in a continuous ecumenical relationship.

Observing Easter for fifty days could help congregations “recover the transforming news that Jesus’ past resurrection dramatically transforms present and future reality.”[4] Additionally, it will help them delight in the knowledge that Jesus’ death and resurrection is stamped on their spiritual biographies.[5]

Expanding your observance of Easter and celebrating other aspects of the Christian year might be a stretch for your congregation. But please make those decisions about this sacred time from a deeper biblical, theological and historical foundation instead of solely on the traditionalism of what your individual congregation or denomination has done in the past.

 


[1] Timothy L. Carson, Transforming Worship, (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003), 57.

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church,  (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 53.

[4] John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 290.

[5] Ibid.

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Apr 8 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Apr 6 2020

Worship Leaders… HOLD FAST!

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Eighteenth and Nineteenth century sailors superstitiously believed that certain tattoos brought good luck and somehow averted disaster. The H-O-L-D F-A-S-T tattoo with one letter tattooed on each finger was originally derived from the Dutch phrase “Houd” (hold) “Vast” (fast). The tattoo was believed to protect a sailor whose life depended on holding fast to a rope on the ships deck or while working aloft in the ships rigging.

The writer of the book of Hebrews wrote the same words not as superstition but with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:22-23).

So worship leaders, as you try to figure out how to lead worship in the new reality of online services, focus on this exhortation instead of agonizing over what you can’t do remotely. Hold Fast…the God who called you to lead worship will sustain you. Hold Fast…in full assurance that He knows where you are and what you are going through.

Hold Fast…confident that you are presentable inside and out. Keep a firm grip on His promises that keep you going. See how inventive you can be by encouraging love and spurring others on to worshiping together even though separated (Heb. 10:19-25). Hold Fast…your worshiping congregation is depending on it.

Hold Fast – Mercy Me

VERSE 1
To everyone who’s hurting
To those who’ve had enough
To all the undeserving
That should cover all of us
Please do not let go
I promise there is hope

CHORUS
Hold fast help is on the way
Hold fast He’s come to save the day
What I’ve learned in my life
One thing greater than my strife
Is His grasp so hold fast

VERSE 2
Will this season ever pass
Can we stop this ride
Will we see the sun at last
Or could this be our lot in life
Please do not let go
I promise you there’s hope

CHORUS
Hold fast help is on the way
Hold fast He’s come to save the day
What I’ve learned in my life
One thing greater than my strife
Is His grasp so hold fast

©2006 Simpleville Music, Wet As A Fish Music, Barry Graul, Bart Millard, Jim Bryson, Mike Scheuchzer, Nathan Cochran, Robby Shaffer.

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Mar 25 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 23 2020

Gathered Worship: A Hard Habit to Break

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For many of us gathered worship has always been a pretty comfortable habit. And even though that habit has sometimes stretched us stylistically through the years, it has rarely stretched us physically…until now.

A habit is a recurrent, often unconscious behavioral pattern acquired through repetition. It is something we do or have done so often that we are able to perform it without having to think about it.

We all have those daily activities or behaviors that we no longer have to think about in order to participate in or accomplish such as brushing our teeth, tying our shoes or even driving to work. Habits such as these have become so routine that they no longer require our emotions to accomplish them.

For some, gathering for Sunday worship had become one of those habits. But the safeguards put in place this last week to protect us from COVID-19 obviously derailed that habit.

Gathering for Sunday worship seemed like a good habit to develop since we are called to worship continuously in spirit and truth. The sticking point, however, is the second part of the definition that a habit is often an unconscious behavioral pattern.

Going to worship, being a worshiper or participating in worship are all good habits to develop. But since the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and his mercies are new every morning, our responses to that love and mercy must also be new every morning.

So maybe one of the many lessons we’ll need to learn during this season of dispersed worship is how to break that pattern of unconsciously gathering for worship. Then when we are actually able to gather again physically we’ll better engage with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

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Mar 11 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Mar 9 2020

12 Things Worship Leaders Want Their Teams to Remember

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They Want You to Remember…

  • How often you are on their minds as they regularly pray for and over you.

 

  • How much it means to them when you protect them from their own stupidity without making them feel stupid.

 

  • How humbled they are when you encourage them after those hard rehearsals even though they don’t really deserve it.

 

  • How often they grieve for you when you are grieving and celebrate with you when you are celebrating.

 

  • How blessed they have been when you’ve volunteered to watch their kids so they could have a real date night with their spouse.

 

  • How much you are also leading them in worship as you lead your congregation in worship.

 

  • How inspired they are when it’s so obvious the songs you lead on the platform are also evident in the lives you live off the platform.

 

  • How proud they are when you discover new spiritual truths and encounter the living Lord in new ways through the songs you play and sing.

 

  • How much confidence your partnership gives them in those times when they feel unqualified to do what God has called them to do.

 

  • How often they are cognizant of the many sacrifices you make in order to serve faithfully in worship ministry.

 

  • How encouraging it is to them when you arrive early for Sunday morning rehearsal even when you haven’t had a full night’s sleep.

 

  • How much it means to them when you love and protect their family just like they are your own.
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Feb 24 2020

How Can I Keep from Singing?

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Although worship can’t be contained in one expression such as music, it is evident from scripture that singing is a significant response to God’s revelation (Ps 63:5; Eph 5:19; Col 3:15-17). One of my former seminary professors once joked, “People who don’t sing should be sent to Sing-Sing until they do sing.”

Reggie Kidd wrote, “Think of singing as a language that allows us to embody our love for our Creator. Song is a means he has given us to communicate our deepest affections, to have our thoughts exquisitely shaped, and to have our spirits braced for the boldest of obediences. Through music, our God draws us deeper into a love affair with himself.”[1]

When writing about the future of Jerusalem, the minor prophet Zephaniah wrote, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph 3:17). So if the Father is singing over me, then how can I keep from singing?

When I can’t find adequate words to express my responses to God’s revelation, Jesus as my worship liturgist sings with me (Heb 8:1-2; 2:12). He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God interceding on my behalf. So if Jesus is singing with me, then how can I keep from singing?

John Wesley was a theologian, evangelist and leader of the revivalist movement known as Methodism. He said this about singing, “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he comes in the clouds of heaven.”

With biblical and practical instructions such as these, I should be joining in full-throated singing no matter how well or poorly I’m able to sing. Then my voice will be united with the voices of others in communal utterances of praise, thanksgiving, confession, dedication, commitment, lament and response. When that corporate singing occurs our songs will communicate vertically and horizontally in a unified voice so compelling that they can’t possibly be silenced (Ps 30:12). So how can I keep from Singing?

 

How Can I Keep from Singing

My life flows on in endless song; Amid earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn that hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?

 

What tho’ my joys and comforts die, the Lord my Helper liveth!

What tho’ the darkness gather round; songs in the night he giveth!

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging;

Since God is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?

 

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smooths since first I learned to love it,

The peace of God makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing;

All things are mine, since I am His – How can I keep from Singing?[2]

 

[1] Reggie M. Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 14.

[2] This hymn is Public Domain and was written by American Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry.

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Feb 19 2020

Worship Word Wednesday

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Feb 10 2020

Leave Worship Better than You Found It

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Most of us can still recall some of those not so gentle reminders from our parents as they prepared us for an unsupervised visit to the home of a friend. Exhortations such as “remember who you are” or “don’t act like you were raised in a barn” were a couple of their standard lines. But the one that continues to resonate with me was the challenge to “leave their home better than you found it.”

What if we had the same attitude as we gathered together for worship? To leave a worship service better than we found it means we have to be willing to shift the topic away from me and my story to God and his story. Leaving it better means we’ll have to concentrate more on what we can offer or give instead of what we demand and deserve. So instead of asking, “what’s in it for me” we must instead start asking, “what’s in it of me.”

Leaving it better will certainly require some sacrifices. Paul wrote in the twelfth chapter of Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.” Charles Thomas Studd was an English missionary who served in several countries including China, India, and Africa. He exemplified this living sacrifice through his motto: “If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”

Sacrificing in order to leave it better means we’ll have to be more focused on how we can selflessly add to gathered worship rather than selfishly subtracting from it. That willingness to surrender or let go means we won’t really lose anything. We’ll just pass it on to something or someone else.[1] Once we grasp the depth of that living sacrifice, then we’ll certainly leave gathered worship better than we found it.

 

[1] Adapted from Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (New York: Hyperion, 2003).

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Jan 27 2020

Drink More Coffee with Senior Adults

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Charlie was one of those senior adults who loved to drink coffee and talk about life. He always seemed to show up on Wednesday afternoon when I still had four hours of rehearsal preparation left and only two hours to complete it. As a young worship leader I sometimes saw those visits as a distraction, now I realize how much they were a divine appointment.

Charlie loved the Lord but he also loved me. So even if he didn’t always resonate with the new initiatives I was suggesting or songs I was leading, he was often willing to endorse them publicly and finance them privately because he cared more about our relationship and the health of our church than his own preferences.

When churches consider worship or programming changes without consulting senior adults like Charlie it can often cause unnecessary transitional pain. Taking the time to collaborate with them helps us recognize and remember those existing elements that could still hold value as foundational building materials in new structures.

Drinking coffee with senior adults can help us discover that most of them are not as averse to changes as much as they are to feeling marginalized through those changes. It often seems to them that their opinions are no longer considered and their convictions are antiquated. So the sacrifice of their blood, sweat, tears and tithes is now being used to build a wall that sidelines or keeps them out completely.

Change is inevitable as a church considers the culture and context of those present and those not present yet. But in an effort to initiate those changes, some of us are willing to do anything different than what was done in the past without first considering the wisdom of those still present from that past. Sharing a few cups of coffee with those senior adults may indeed help to bring some of them on board with our proposed changes, but just as often it can thankfully protect us from our own stupidity.

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Jan 20 2020

Is Your Church in Conflict? Come to the Table!

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communion

We often look for Chronos (man’s time) resources to resolve church conflicts. So we bring in mediators, read books together, plan conferences, schedule sermon series, and implement lists of best conflict resolution practices. What we often forget, however, is that Kairos (God’s time) resolution of conflict is already available at the Communion Table.

Paul spoke of Communion as the fellowship of sharing in the body and blood of Christ so it is something we do together (1 Cor. 10:16). And since the Table is the place for that kind of intimacy, it’s also the place where the absence of that intimacy is most painfully revealed.[1]

On the night of His betrayal and arrest Jesus prayed that all of us would be one just as He and the Father are one (John 17:1-2). The unity that Jesus spoke of is not only in our vertical relationship with him but also our horizontal relationship with each other.

The Corinthian Church was challenged to take a good, long look at what was going on in their hearts before participating in Communion. Paul wrote, “Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). So if we are preparing for and observing this ordinance regularly in a worthy manner based on those stipulations, then how could we possibly remain at odds with each other (1Cor. 11:27)?

Communion can remind us not only of what relational healing God offered in the past but what He promises to continue to offer in the future. Coming back to the Table more can encourage us to heal relationships this time when we might not have had the resolve to heal them last time. So if our church is in conflict, then why wouldn’t we want to come back there more often?

 

 

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994), 74-75.

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Jan 13 2020

Not All Those Who Wonder Are Lost

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Wonder: To question with a sense of doubt or uncertainty.

If doubters are expected to resolve their doubts outside of our worship services, then why would they want to connect with those worship services once those doubts are resolved. And if our public worship is not the place for that intimate soul transparency, then where is?

Three days after Jesus had been killed and buried, friends of the eleven disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. They encountered an angel who told them Jesus had been raised from the dead. The angel instructed them to meet Jesus in Galilee. So the disciples traveled to the mountain and when they saw Jesus, they worshiped, but some doubted (Matt 28:16-20).

The text doesn’t say, “some of them worshiped and others doubted.” They doubted even as they worshiped. And it was obvious that those doubts were not held in secret since Matthew recorded them. So their doubts didn’t preclude or exclude them from the public worship of Jesus.

So how did Jesus respond to their worship and doubts? The text says, “Jesus came near.” He didn’t just come near to those who had it figured out. He didn’t set aside the others until they got it figured out. He just came near. Then he commissioned them…all of them including the doubters to go and make disciples. And he ended his commission by reminding them that he would be with them, obviously with or without their doubts.

So if some of the disciples who physically walked with Jesus could worship the risen Lord face to face and still doubt, then why can’t we? Authentic worship must embrace and walk with those various seasons of people’s lives, including doubt. Jesus came near then and continues to now. And so must we.

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Kahlil Gibran

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Jan 6 2020

The Theology of Hymns Versus Modern Worship Songs

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Theology is those truths that are taught by God, truths that teach us of God, and truths that lead us to God. Our congregations sing that theology every week in a variety of languages, contexts, cultures, and styles.

So we should choose songs that helps us sing that theology by asking if they quicken the conscience through the holiness of God, feed the mind with the truth of God, purge the imagination by the beauty of God, open the heart to the love of God, and devote the will to the purpose of God.[1]

Those deeper foundational questions, though,  often take a back seat to our first asking how those songs make us feel. When we base our selections on feelings alone, then our emotional connection to a favorite genre arbitrarily sets the standard for the theological value of all genres. Consequently, we then automatically label all those other genres beyond our favorite as theologically sub-standard.

Hymns or modern worship songs are not innately more theological just because we have an emotional attachment to one or the other. Modern worship songs are not more theological because they sound better with a band and multitracks. And hymns are not more theological because we can recall their texts and tunes or sing them in four-part harmony. Both hymns and modern songs can be and are theological as long as they reflect and respond to biblical text; connect the word of God to the people of God; help us sing the gospel; can be sung with doctrinal integrity; and encourage us to be doers and not just hearers.

It is indeed true that our hearts can often be stirred or softened individually through one favorite genre of worship songs over another. Those favorites can cause us to remember significant events or spiritual seasons. And those connections seem to help us better form and frame a deeper understanding of who God is.

But we must be careful never to assume that the musical and emotional connection that solidifies a deeper theological understanding for us is the only tenable musical and emotional option that can possibly solidify a deeper theological understanding for all.

The theology in our hymns or modern worship songs isn’t mutually exclusive. So instead of propping up one by maligning the other, we should be praying that the peace of Christ would keep them and us in tune as worship allies instead of adversaries. 

 

[1] Adapted from a quote by William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44.

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Dec 11 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Dec 2 2019

An Argument for Punctuation in Projected Song Lyrics

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Adding punctuation to our projected text offers road signs and symbols that help frame the rhythm, flow, and phrasing of the story or poem we are singing. Most of us learned and have followed these non-verbal cues since elementary school.

A comma can tell singers where to pause for emphasis, but also indicates when a statement or question is not yet complete. A period shows singers when a verse, chorus, or phrase has ended. Additional punctuation helps singers emphasize or deemphasize certain words that might elevate or minimize theological implications. Singers might miss some of those spiritual emphases without those markers. Consequently, how would they know if what they are singing is asking a theological question or answering a doctrinal statement?

Since many of us will be singing Advent and Christmas Carols in the coming weeks you’ll see below a couple of examples of how adding or deleting punctuation can change the theological understanding of familiar carols:

So bring Him incense gold and myrrh

Come peasant king to own Him

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come, peasant, king, to own Him;

Without punctuation we are left confused with the peasant king oxymoron. With punctuation we understand that Christ is available to all, including peasants and kings.

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Rest you merry was a Shakespearean idiom that expressed good cheer or peace. Without punctuation it appears that the gentlemen are already merry. But with the appropriate punctuation the plea is actually for God to bring the gentlemen peace so that nothing will dismay them.

The argument that many of our songs are poetry, and consequently shouldn’t be expected to follow the same strict punctuation guidelines as prose is a valid one. But poetry doesn’t usually eliminate punctuation altogether, it instead uses it artistically to highlight the text.

Some worship leaders might be able to direct us vocally and instrumentally when those road signs are missing, but not all possess those abilities. And if we are truly trying to lead our congregations into participative instead of passive worship, then wouldn’t it make sense for leaders not to do for congregants what they already learned to do for themselves at a young age?

It is certainly easier not to add punctuation when we are preparing song slides for our worship services. But is ease what we are called to when we’re trying to encourage our congregants to leave with those texts and tunes in their hearts and on their lips for continuous worship. Punctuation can help them take those formative lyrics home with biblical and theological accuracy.

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Nov 25 2019

Are You Called to Lead Worship?

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What is compelling you to be a worship leader? Are you leading because you love to play and sing; because it is a great way to supplement your income or provide for your family; because of the notoriety of being on the platform; because you have a music degree but don’t want to teach school; or because you don’t really know how to do anything else? If these are reasons why you are leading worship, then it’s possible your compulsion might be out of convenience instead of calling.

God’s call gives us a task that is more than a role. It involves our entire being, not just our musical talent in service to the Lord. So it is a call to being as well as doing.[1] None of us alone in our own talent can claim to possess such commitment to God and compassion to men; such knowledge of faith and the ability to impart it through our worship leading; such maturity in godliness and wisdom in guiding others. Only Jesus gives that Spirit in full measure to those who are called.[2]

We don’t even have a call to worship leadership that was not first a call to Christ.[3] Worship leadership is not given to us for our talent to be elevated. Our talent is given to us for our worship to be elevated.

Convenience may fit well with a person’s plans or abilities. It is comfortable and readily accessible. And it is suitable and favorable to one’s own needs so it can often be accomplished without divine assistance. Convenience is a vocation or occupation in the mean time.

Calling, on the other hand, is a personal invitation from God to carry out a unique task. It is a strong inner impulse prompted by a divine conviction that often requires sacrifice. Calling is a ministry or mission for a lifetime. Consequently, it’s not always convenient.

So again, what is compelling you to be a worship leader? Convenience responds to that question with, “This is what I was trained to do.” Calling responds with, “This is what I was created to do.”

 

[1] Edmund P. Clowney, Called to the Ministry (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1976), 10.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 5.

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Nov 20 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 18 2019

10 Things Our Worship Songs Can’t Do

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10 Things Our Worship Songs Can’t Do

  • They can’t cause or cure our church conflicts.
  • They can’t grow or kill our church.
  • They can’t be contained in one genre or style.
  • They can’t begin or end our worship.
  • They can’t take the place of worship service Scripture.
  • They can’t cause us to worship.
  • They can’t prop up our bad theology.
  • They can’t take the place of worship service prayer.
  • They can’t usher us into the presence of God.
  • They can’t be our only act of worship.
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Nov 11 2019

Music May Be Killing Intergenerational Worship

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multigenerational

How can congregations expect to have healthy intergenerational worship on Sunday when they segregate by age in all of their other ministries throughout the week? Then the only time various generations connect is during an hour on Sunday around songs one generation or the other doesn’t particularly like. So if they are depending on the music of that one-hour as the solitary driver of intergenerational worship, then it can’t help but get the solitary blame when conflict arises.

What if, instead, all generations made an attempt to connect first by learning to love, respect and defer to each other outside of the worship service? Couldn’t those relationships that develop outside of our services then positively impact the relationships inside those services as well?

A healthy integration of the generations may not occur in worship until leaders are willing to lead dispersed intergenerational worship before attempting to lead gathered intergenerational worship. Here are some suggestions:

  • Lead them to pray for and with each other. Praying for and with each other is not just praying for another generation to change its mind. Praying for and with each other requires communication, vulnerability, honesty, trust, brokenness and selflessness.
  • Lead them to read Scripture to and with each other. Scripture must be the foundation of intergenerational worship. Nothing softens the heart of a grandparent more than to hear his/her grandchild read the word of God.
  • Lead them to share ministry together. Shared ministry requires sacrifice, humility and an investment of time and trust. Serving others together encourages and generates unity that our music sometimes can’t.
  • Lead them to play together. Those relationships exemplified by the Acts 2 church of spending time together, having everything in common, breaking bread in their homes and eating together with glad and sincere hearts is often a foreign relationship beyond our own generation.
  • Lead them to the Table together. We keep trying to manufacture unity that is already available at the Lord’s Supper Table. Communion is waiting for all generations there.
  • Lead them to sing together. If unity is the basis of intergenerational worship during the week, then unity will yield intergenerational worship on Sunday. When that occurs, how can we keep from singing our various songs together?

Maybe before we try to unify our worship musically…
we should first try to unify our generations relationally.

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Nov 6 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Nov 4 2019

Urban Myth

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There is sometimes a perception that the worship of a larger urban church is better because its size and metro location allows for a deeper pool of musicians and a higher quality of musicianship. So smaller rural church worship is often seen as a mediocre representation or a couple of steps behind and a few notches below its urban counterparts.

Urban and rural worship comparisons such as these might actually be true if the only standard by which our worship is measured is the level of our musicianship and availability of capable players and singers.

A standard is the basis or model to which something else should be compared. It is something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, value or quality.

Scripture speaks to standards by which our worship should be measured on several occasions. The prophet Micah condemned Israel’s dishonest, corrupt, and meaningless worship by pointing out that God’s standard is doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly (Micah 6:8).

Jesus outlined the standard by commanding us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). And Paul wrote that the standard is offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

Meeting these and other biblical standards for good worship doesn’t mean we are willing to settle for musical mediocrity or a lack of preparation. All churches, in fact, urban or rural must constantly strive to create something unbelievable with the music and musicians they have available to them.

But according to Scripture the standard by which our worship is measured as good or better is not the quality of our music or availability of musicians. It is instead the condition of our hearts. So the quality of worship that is based on that standard can be met just as readily in smaller rural churches as it can in larger urban churches.

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Oct 28 2019

50 Worship Leader Self-Evaluation Questions

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As worship leaders we sometimes don’t consider evaluating our own leadership until we receive complaints about something we are or aren’t doing or singing. Consequently, when those criticisms occur our responses are usually defensive rather than corrective.

Self-evaluation is preventive and proactive rather than defensive and reactive. So in order to avert or deter an unfavorable assessment from others, we should first ask some hard questions of ourselves. The following list of self-evaluation questions is not an exhaustive one but hopefully a place to begin.

  1. Are the services I plan and lead usually easy to follow or are they more often disorganized and disjointed?
  1. Am I planning worship each week for the congregation I’ve been called to lead or one I wish I had been called to lead?
  1. Are my verbal instructions and transitions ad-libbed and verbose or prepared and succinct?
  1. Am I encouraging passive worshipers by leading worship for them instead of with them?
  1. Do the people I put on the platform adequately represent the cultural, generational and spiritual characteristics of our congregation?
  1. Is my primary consideration for selecting worship team members musical or spiritual?
  1. Are the songs I lead on the platform evident in the life I lead off the platform?
  1. Am I selecting or not selecting songs and styles just because I personally like or don’t like them?
  1. Do I select song keys to intentionally encourage congregational participation or just to complement my own vocal range?
  1. Are the songs I select theologically sound and biblically accurate?
  1. Are any of my artistic, visual, verbal or musical expressions contrived or distracting? 
  1. Do I convey that worship starts and stops with our opening and closing songs?
  1. Do I begin worship planning each week with song titles or Scripture and prayer?
  1. Besides the latest songs, am I learning anything new?
  1. Since Sunday isn’t usually a Sabbath for me, when am I taking one?
  1. Do I ask how something might impact my family before asking how it might impact my worship leading?
  1. Have I surrounded myself with those who can protect me from my own stupidity?
  1. Am I spending a lot of time worshiping privately before leading worship publicly?
  1. Does always highlighting my playing and singing sometimes imply I don’t really care whether the congregation is singing or not?
  1. Do I wake up every morning feeling unqualified in my own power to do what God has called me to do?
  1. Am I taking care of myself spiritually, emotionally, physically and relationally?
  1. Have I gotten in the habit of using worship service prayer as a segue for musical elements instead of a divine conversation?
  1. Do I ever welcome divine interruptions in my service planning and leading?
  1. Am I casting vision for the future without denigrating the past?
  1. Do I determine the worship language of my congregations based on how I might appear to my worship leading friends?
  1. Am I able to worship when I’m not the primary leader?
  1. Is worship leading a calling for me or just convenient?
  1. Am I leading worship just because I don’t know how to do anything else?
  1. Am I making a conscious effort to pour into younger leaders or am I just trying to protect my territory?
  1. Am I threatened when someone on the team plays or sings better than I do?
  1. Am I depending on my musical skills alone to do what it’s only possible for God to do?
  1. Do I act like a gatekeeper by holding my congregation captive to my favorite worship styles and musical preferences?
  1. Does it seem like the services I plan tend to place more focus on the creative or the Creator?
  1. Am I spending more of my time developing my musical skills or my relationship skills?
  1. Do I find myself coasting or faking it more and more often?
  1. Am I approachable, available and accountable?
  1. Am I more concerned with playing right notes than having right relationships?
  1. Does it seem like I’m more of a cheerleader than a worship leader?
  1. Is it evident from my worship responses that I’m no longer amazed by God’s revelation?
  1. Does my leading lean toward manipulation instead of exhortation?
  1. Do I always seem to disappear when it’s time to set up or tear down?
  1. Am I showing up to rehearsals unprepared?
  1. Do I treat the worship team like backup musicians?
  1. Do I ever use my artistry and busyness as an excuse for laziness and lateness?
  1. Am I coasting at the first of the week causing me to scramble at the end of the week?
  1. Is the worship I’m leading challenging our congregation to be doers or just hearers?
  1. Am I regularly praying for and with those I lead?
  1. Are the songs I’m selecting giving our congregation an opportunity for celebration and contemplation?
  1. Do I offer a healthy balance of both familiar and new songs?
  1. Is it evident to others that I’m as much of a worship leader on Monday as I was on Sunday?
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Oct 14 2019

Top 10 Worship Word Wednesday Quotes

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I have been posting a weekly Worship Word Wednesday for a year. These are stand-alone quotes taken from my weekly Worship Evaluation Blog or my teaching notes and other writing projects. The following are the top 10 quotes from this last year according to analytics, shares, comments, likes or reposts.

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10.

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Sep 25 2019

Worship Word Wednesday

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Sep 3 2019

Worship Leader and Worship Team Relational Contract

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A relational contract is a voluntary agreement between two or more parties that clarifies the expectations of their association in order to diminish conflict, encourage unity, inspire trust and foster mutual accountability.

What if worship leaders and worship teams planned, prepared and presented worship with a relational contractual agreement as one of the foundational components of their leadership? Can you imagine the worship health potential this could offer your congregation?

Unfortunately, this type of worship leading relationship sometimes doesn’t occur because leaders often function as independent contractors reliant on their own strength, ability, methods, processes and talent.

Implementing a relational contract will require a level of sacrifice and trust that is not guarded, territorial, defensive or competitive. It could serve as a useful guide to hold each other accountable to the unified goal of fulfilling and helping each other fulfill the mission of your church. But it will obviously never occur unless and until all parties are willing to embrace it.

Worship Leader/Worship Team Relational Contract

In an effort to more effectively lead, exhort, teach and model healthy worship, we as the primary worship leaders agree to adhere to the following relational guiding principles. We understand that the worship of our congregation will never be completely healthy until our relationship as its leaders is also healthy.

______________________, Worship Leader

______________________, Worship Team Member

______________________, Worship Team Member

______________________, Worship Team Member

______________________, Worship Team Member

______________________, Worship Team Member

We agree that we will…

  • Maintain a collaborative spirit that supports all of our worship gifts as complementary, not competitive.
  • Publicly and privately acknowledge the value of our unique callings, leadership styles, gifts and competencies.
  • Listen as often as we speak.
  • Partner in leading and teaching worship that moves beyond musical style alone to deeper biblical and theological content.
  • Communicate our disagreements in private without fear of retribution.
  • Make every effort to be approachable, available and accountable to each other.
  • Affirm in public; correct, instruct, coach and mentor in private; and pastor each other at all times.
  • Sacrifice individually for the sake of the body corporately.
  • Initiate intentional significant conversations that include our hopes, dreams, goals, expectations, plans, concerns and evaluations.
  • Invest in the personal and spiritual development of each other with no ulterior motive.
  • Preserve loyalty, trust, morality, respect and friendship.
  • Work toward a common philosophy of worship and ministry.
  • Pray consistently for and with each other.
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